Friday, January 25, 2008

The State of Live Performance

Mike Felten writes:

I started in 1965 singing House of the Rising Sun at a place called Snoopy’s Lounge. Since then I picked up and started several different careers. Cover bands, country bands, solo singer/songwriter gigs, blues bands, metal bands. The last time I did it steady was ten years ago with a blues band, but I put out one CD and then did another and wanted to go out and sell it. Times have changed

When I went back up to the UP last fall, I had hoped to look up some of the guys that I played in cover bands with. Always in the back of my mind, I figured that I could go up and play Proud Mary for a couple of weeks in hunting season and make a few bucks. We were the hot band in the mid 80's. We worked seven days a week, four hours a night and six on Sunday and got paid pretty well.

There used to be a "what to do" page in the local newspaper that was basically a listing of who was playing at what bar. That was gone. It seemed like a lot of the bars were gone too. In the few bars I stopped in there was karaoke and DJ's. From talking to the bartenders the attitude seemed to be why hire four guys to play CCR when one guy could play the real thing on his I-pod. The only thing wrong was that DJ was playing Nelson.

I wanted to get up to my favorite venue - the Amasa Hotel. We christened the place the Tiltin' Hilton because the floors sloped so badly we had to put blocks under our amps so they wouldn't roll out on the dance floor. When we plugged in - the lights of the town dimmed. The place was always packed with guys and girls from the sawmill. Al Kooper was trying to tell me about playing the Fillmore and I responded by telling him about playing the Amasa Hotel.
I remembered that the place was purchased by a couple who fixed the place up. They had adopted a couple of cute little Asian girls who I'm sure are college age by now. The future looked bright but the place was shuttered now.
I didn't know if the lumberjacks in Hardwood were out dancing to club DJ's playing Tupac. It would be so bizarre if that was the case and worth the trip to see.
The reservation bars were always steady work. Tough, chicken wire and fights but they needed a band on weekends and they paid. The Escanaba Hotel was shuttered too. We used to get the guys off the ore boats mixing it up with the Indians. Now there is a casino down the road in Hermansville. You drive out of the woods and it looks like five acres of Vegas. The first night that I played at the coffeehouse in Esky the owner said the turnout was light because ZZ Top was playing the casino. I didn't think our fan bases overlapped. I was more worried about conflicting with the high school football game or the stock car races or the county fair.
On the other hand, you used to have to drive to Green Bay or Marquette to see a ZZ Top before. Ted Nugent would come up hunting and do a show or two in Marquette. Kiss had a dedicated fan base and Seger used to come up and vacation. All the folks had was bands like us. They talked for months about Tammy Wynette's tour bus stopping for donuts. Somebody had written Neil Young’s name on a bathroom wall and people were convinced that it was him. Ruby Starr who sang the “go Jim Dandy” line with Black Oak Arkansas was a star. Maybe the people actually deserved something better than what we gave them.
Our annual gig up at Copper Harbor would draw people from about a hundred miles away. I remember one guy requesting "She Belongs To Me" and we did it for him. "Pretty good," he said, but Dylan does it in a different key." He was sitting somewhere in this remote end of the world and listening not only to Dylan, but figuring out the keys. There was a passion about the music then. I wonder if it is still there. Maybe that is the test. Are they still pulling the bounce in from Newfoundland to hear the BBC. Is the guy out there still downloading new stuff, like the guy who laid early Lucinda Williams tapes on me. Or did he give up?
Are all the Sunday jam sessions gone? Was it all gone? It sure seemed to be

So it is 2008,Chicago and I mean the city proper, is one of the worst places to have a band. There are 10,000 kids in Iowa eager to come here and play for nothing so why should we pay you? The blues is by and large a tourist industry. When I had the blues band we had a regular Wednesday night gig. On weekends the place would employ a lot of the old Maxwell street guys. In what I thought was a humorous reverse racism, the club owners wanted Black faces on the stage for the weekend. We'd go and jam and sometimes play most of the night and that was OK as long as our white faces weren't on the window. We were playing Kingston Mines one afternoon when a nervous Japanese fellow asked us if the evening band was going to be Black American soul men. He was relieved when we assured him it was. You had to play ‘Sweet Home Chicago” and look the part.
Then we'd get the hot shot suburban guitarist who would sit there and say Johnny Dollar or Johnny B. Moore sucked because they were out of tune. Well, dickwad, this is the blues. It’s not any good if it is in tune.
Looking at the nurturing scenes in Austin or Detroit, I know it is not the same way everywhere. In Ferndale I had a guy pointed out to me who was Lenny from Lenny and the Thundertones. I guess Bob Seger used to hang around their garage. That doesn't happen in Chicago.
I wandered into a guy who used to play with Ral Donner and went on to play bass with everybody from John Lee Hooker to Bozo's Circus. Nobody gives a shit in Chicago, he’d be signing autographs in Detroit. Hayden Thompson, the rockabilly guy drives a limo in Chicago, in Europe he is driven in a limo.
You can make money in the burbs with tribute bands and blues bands that tend to the Stevie Ray type of blues. You can be the Blues Brothers. I hosted a jam session one night for a friend of mine and a lady came up and thanked me for playing authentic blues. I wanted to ask her if she was crazy.
I had a buddy who booked corporate events. They did their Elvis shows and disco bands and a lot of the putrid stuff you hear at the street fairs ( a guy singing "Like A Virgin") It is lucrative to a point, but he gave it up after twenty something years and bought a GOT-JUNK franchise in Phoenix.
Chicago used to be a folk mecca. Now there is only a few places that book it. They actually made a commercial about one of them with a depressed looking blond getting ready to strum, "another song about my ex-husband". Irish bands do better. The Old Town School has kids strumming Beatle tunes en masse and then doing a recital. They hit the world music pretty hard.
One of the saddest chapters was Fred Holstein. Aside from Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp, he was THE Chicago folksinger. He couldn't make a living at it anymore. He tended bar down the street from my store and couldn't earn enough to get his teeth fixed.
The last time that I saw Jimmie Lee Robinson, one of the fixtures on Maxwell Street, he was playing a Borders and half of the people had their backs to him.
Thinking of Fred and Jimmie Lee, I can't be in my right mind to want to go out and play for people. The biggest apprehension that I had about resuming performance was my age. Just who is this old bastard standing her instead of an angst ridden teenager?
And then some kid in Tulsa asks me what I'm doing with that metal thing on my finger and what kind of music that is I’m playing and did I really talk to Willie Dixon and then climbing these mountains seem to be worth while.


Blogger Bee said...

I feel like I can't really comment intelligently on this very detailed and interesting rumination on the Chicago music scene. It was a good read, though.

Like you, I am a new blogger. I got bored of the same old people that I meet in the English countryside and decided to look for some more like-minded (or at least stranger than me) friends.

I am playing a new game in which I click on one of my interests and see what Blogger pulls up. You are James McMurtry's wonderful novel -- Moving On. By the way, have you ever visited Archer City? I made a pilgrimage there a few years ago to check out all of the bookstores.

Here is a "Moving On" story that I've never shared with anyone. (By the way, there are only 15 of us "Moving On" folks on Blogger; so this is a fairly eccentric choice.) When I was applying to graduate school, I was torn between the University of Texas (Austin) and Rice. While I was checking out Rice, I visited the Half-Price Bookstore in West U Village. I saw "Moving On" -- I read it -- I loved it -- and I took it as a sign that it was set in Houston/Rice U. Later at Rice, (I was studying English Lit), I read Tristram Shandy . . . one of the books that Patsy reads in the novel.

Of course moving to Houston changed the course of my life -- and it was mostly due to this book.

I absolutely love the possibilities for connectedness on the Internet. It somehow compensates for the fact that there are so, so many of us.

2:22 PM  

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